Women in the Peninsular War

Women in the Peninsular War

by Charles J. Esdaile

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In the iconography of the Peninsular War of 1808–14, women are well represented—both as heroines, such as Agustina Zaragosa Domenech, and as victims, whether of starvation or of French brutality. In history, however, with its focus on high politics and military operations, they are invisible—a situation that Charles J. Esdaile seeks to address.See more details below


In the iconography of the Peninsular War of 1808–14, women are well represented—both as heroines, such as Agustina Zaragosa Domenech, and as victims, whether of starvation or of French brutality. In history, however, with its focus on high politics and military operations, they are invisible—a situation that Charles J. Esdaile seeks to address.

In Women in the Peninsular War, Esdaile looks beyond the iconography. While a handful of Spanish and Portuguese women became Agustina-like heroines, a multitude became victims, and here both of these groups receive their due. But Esdaile reveals a much more complicated picture in which women are discovered to have experienced, responded to, and participated in the conflict in various ways. While some women fought or otherwise became involved in the struggle against the invaders, others turned collaborator, used the war as a means of effecting dramatic changes in their situation, or simply concentrated on staying alive. Along with Agustina Zaragoza Domenech, then, we meet French sympathizers, campfollowers, pamphleteers, cross-dressers, prostitutes, amorous party girls, and even a few protofeminists.

Esdaile examines many social spheres, ranging from the pampered daughters of the nobility, through the cloistered members of Spain’s many convents, to the tough and defiant denizens of the Madrid slums. And we meet not just the women to whom the war came but also the women who came to the war—the many thousands who accompanied the British and French armies to the Iberian peninsula. Thanks to his use of copious original source material, Esdaile rescues one and all from, as E. P. Thompson put it, “the enormous condescension of posterity.” And yet all these women remain firmly in their historical and cultural context, a context that Esdaile shows to have emerged from the Peninsular War hardly changed. Hence the subsequent loss of these women’s story, and the obscurity from which this book has at long last rescued them.

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University of Oklahoma Press
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6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.10(d)

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Women in the Peninsular War

By Charles J. Esdaile


Copyright © 2014 Loren D. Estleman
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8061-4763-5



Let us begin with a paradox. In essence, this book is about the manner in which women experienced the Peninsular War of 1808–14 and the impact which the latter had upon their lives. As stated in the preface, this aspect of the struggle is one that has hitherto at best been treated in a very inadequate fashion. Yet the women of the Peninsular War are very far from being unknown, or, at least, unenvisaged. On the contrary, from 1814 onwards they have been imagined as experiencing the conflict in a wide variety of ways, some of them conventional and some of them less so, the greatest want of the historiography having been its failure to test out these images. In this book we shall try to remedy this situation, but, before doing so, it is first necessary to spend some time reviewing the images that have come down to us, and all the more so as we shall in the process discover a far greater breadth of historic memory than might at first be expected.

If we are looking for images of women, the logical place to begin is the art spawned by the conflict. For a long time interested only in high politics and operational military history, chroniclers of the war and the academic historians who succeeded them could happily expunge women from their works, but for artists this was much less easy: away from the actual battle lines, it was difficult to conceive of a world in which women were not part of the visual scene. At the same time, whereas women constituted a distraction from the narrative within which writers wished to operate, artists actually had many positive reasons to include women in their work. Thus, women could be used to add colour, to heighten emotion, or to stress some political point, whether it was the unity of the populace in the face of French aggression or the atrocities engaged in by one side or the other. In consequence, it is only a slight exaggeration to say that, other than in the set-piece battle scenes associated with such artists as Butler, Caton Woodville and Casado de Alisal, the women of Iberia were almost as present in the iconography of the Peninsular War as they were absent from its historiography. That said, whether the iconography of the war did very much to further historical understanding is another matter, for, as we shall see, it set in stone many myths which to this day continue to obstruct the study of the 'women's history' of the conflict (and not just that: Goya's famous Desastres de la Guerra are probably the images of the Peninsular War that are most frequently reproduced, and yet the view that they offer of the struggle is at best incomplete and, at worst, wildly misleading).

In so far as the iconography of the Peninsular War is concerned, the prints, paintings and engravings which constitute it fall into a relatively small number of categories. In brief, although the three groups are inclined to be a trifle blurred, we have the woman as heroine, the woman as victim and the woman as auxiliary in the patriotic struggle. In so far as the first category is concerned, the obvious place to begin is the image of Agustina de Aragón (more precisely, Agustina Zaragoza Domenech). The history of this woman—conceivably the most famous individual combatant of the Peninsular War—is detailed elsewhere, but in brief she came to fame when she rushed forward at a crucial moment during the first siege of Zaragoza in July 1808 and saved a key position by firing a cannon into the faces of some advancing French troops. Within weeks of this event having taken place, it was on its way to becoming the stock image of Spain's struggle against Napoleon. Determined to enhance his reputation by every means available, in the autumn of 1808 the Captain General and de facto dictator of Zaragoza, General José Palafox y Melci, summoned a trio of well-known artists from Madrid and commissioned them to create a visual record of both the city's defenders and the ruins left by the siege. Of the men concerned, the most famous—none other than Francisco de Goya—went his own way (see below), but the other two—Fernando Brambila and Juan Gálvez—proved more co-operative, and the result was the publication in 1812–13 of a set of engravings entitled Las ruinas de Zaragoza depicting, first, a series of ruined buildings; second, the main events of the siege; and, third, the chief defenders of the city. Prominent among these last, needless to say, was Agustina Zaragoza, the latter being depicted in a virago-like pose suggesting both anger and contempt for the enemy.

Reproduced many times over in the course of the nineteenth century in print, painting and engraving, and more-or-less subtly adapted to reflect the views of the artist, the image of Domenech and her cannon became a metaphor for both the Spanish people's determination to resist Napoleon and the women of Spain's active participation in the struggle that resulted. It is important to realize, however, that, Domenech was never short of sisters. On the contrary, in the very collection that first gave her image to the world, the image of the warrior woman is repeatedly revisited. Amongst the individual portraits, then, we have Casta Álvarez, a young peasant woman who is supposed to have armed herself with a musket and bayonet and helped defend the Puerta de Sancho, and the Condesa de Bureta, a female relative of Palafox's who placed her personal fortune at the service of the defenders and assisted with the provision of food and medical supplies. Meanwhile, in several of the battle scenes, women may be seen fighting in the front ranks and even taking on the French without any men being present at all. As the nineteenth century wore on, meanwhile, images of the woman in arms continued to proliferate. The Condesa de Bureta made a renewed appearance as an amazon at the hands of the Extremaduran painter, Nicolás Mejía, while a fresh addition to the iconography of Zaragoza's heroines appeared in the form of a painting of one Manuela Sancho that was produced by Fernando Jiménez Nicanor in 1887, Sancho being a woman of some means who was wounded whilst helping to defend the convent of San José in December 1808.3 In addition to these images there appeared many paintings of the siege in which unknown women were very obvious foci of attention: in Vicente Palmoril's Escena de los sitios de Zaragoza, a woman stands poised with a musket above her head ready to kill the first French soldier brave enough to emerge from a hole that has just been blown in a wall, while in Maurice Orange's Defenseurs de Zaragoza (1893) another woman turns aside from a long column of emaciated survivors to harangue the French troops lining the street. Meanwhile, it was not just the defence of Zaragoza that provided examples of women who had sprung to arms. Almost equally fruitful as a source was the rising of the Dos de Mayo, women appearing in several paintings of the defence of the artillery park of Monteleón.

Thus far, we have seen the Peninsular War treated very much in terms of military glory. The second group of images that we must look at, however, are much darker (indeed, often quite literally so): consider, for instance, the alternative vision of the Dos de Mayo painted by Palmeroli which has the women of Madrid not battling the French to the death but rather wringing their hands over the bodies of menfolk killed by Murat's firing squads. We come here to the idea of women as victim. Although there are a few other examples—in an engraving published in 1813 by the Portuguese artist, Domingos de Sequeira, we see a Lisbon street over-run with desperate female refugees, while successive depictions of the disaster that took place at Oporto in March 1809 when large numbers of fugitives who were trying to get across the River Douro were drowned when the pontoon bridge they were using gave way beneath them emphasise the fact that many of the victims were women—the chief exponent of this position is Francisco de Goya. Though a participant in the visit to Zaragoza mentioned above, Goya was clearly unimpressed by Palafox's bluster, while his attitude towards the uprising remained distinctly ambivalent. Thus, at first sight the 'Dos de Mayo' and the 'Tres de Mayo' seem a hymn to popular heroism, but, especially when viewed in the light of the later 'Caprichos', they can just as easily be read as a condemnation of popular violence and stupidity. And consider, too, the relatively unknown 'Ataque sobre un campamento militar': painted in approximately 1809, this shows a group of civilians including a young woman cradling a baby flying in panic before some advancing troops without putting up the slightest resistance. For Goya, then, neither the Spanish people in general, nor Spanish women in particular, were necessarily heroic, and it is therefore no coincidence that he remained aloof from Gálvez and Brambila and instead worked in secret on a parallel series of engravings that presented an extremely negative view of the war and was entitled 'The Fatal Consequences of Spain's Bloody War with Bonaparte and other Decided Caprices' (the title by which they are known today—'The Disasters of War'—was only given them when they appeared in print in 1863).

Yet, denunciations of the Spanish struggle though they were, the effect of these engravings was rather to confirm belief in the War of Independence as a glorious epoch in Spanish history. In the first place, there were echoes of the myth of the female warrior. In the engraving entitled 'Que valor!' ('What courage!'), we see the slim figure of Domenech not just standing erect and defiant beside an enormous fieldpiece, but also symbolically shielding the observer from an unseen opponent. Nor, meanwhile, is this the only engraving in the series that projects the idea of the woman as combatant, albeit perhaps as a temporary one who takes up arms only in dire emergency. Thus, in 'Y son fieras' ('And they, too, are furies') a group of women who have obviously been taken by surprise by French troops—one of them is carrying a baby under her arm—are seen fighting desperately to defend themselves with a variety of improvised weapons. Less dramatic, but otherwise rather similar is 'Las mujeres dan valor' ('The women inspire courage') in which we see two women locked in combat with two French soldiers who have evidently been trying to rape them, and 'No quieren' ('This is not love') in which a French soldier grapples with a girl while an old woman—possibly her mother, perhaps—attempts to stab him in the back. However, striking though these four engravings are—engravings which, it should be stressed in no way imply that women were anything other than occasional combatants—on looking at the 'Disasters of War' as a whole, we generally see women rather as the helpless victims of man's inhumanity. In 'Tampoco' ('Nor this'), 'Ni por esas' ('Not even for these'), 'Amarga presencia' ('Bitter presence'), 'Ya no hay tiempo' ('There is no longer any time'), women are seen being raped; in 'No se puede mirar' ('One cannot look'), they figure in a mass execution; in 'Estragos de la guerra' ('War damage'), they are crushed in the wreckage of a collapsing building; in 'Escapan de las llamas' ('Escaping from the flames'), 'Yo lo vi' ('I saw this') and 'Y esto también' ('And this too'), they become fugitives and refugees; in 'Que alboroto es este?' ('What is all this row'?), they collapse in floods of tears on receiving news of the death or execution of a son or husband; and, finally in 'Cruel lástima' ('Cruel misfortune'), 'Caridad de una mujer' ('Charity of a woman'), 'Madre infeliz' ('Unhappy mother'), 'Gracias a la almorta' ('Thanks be to vetch'), 'No llegan a tiempo' ('They did not arrive in time'), 'Sanos y enfermos' ('Healthy and sick'), 'De que sirve una taza?' ('What is the use of a cup?') and 'Si son de otro linaje' ('If they are of other lineage'), they are seen begging in the streets or succumbing to famine and disease (be it noted that in one or two instances these images of women enduring the utmost misery also show women succouring the poor and starving, but this, of course, merely opens a door on yet another aspect of traditional ideas of how women become engaged with the experience of war). War, then, was horrible, but, precisely because the enemy appeared to be so terrible, the War of Independence in particular was a struggle that self-evidently had to be embarked upon and, indeed, had called forth the heroism of men and women alike.

It is, alas, not just nineteenth-century Spaniards who have a tendency to read into the Desastres de la Guerra a message that their author never intended them to portray. Thus, Janis Tomlinson has suggested that a constant theme in the work of Francisco de Goya was the emergence of Spain's women from the reclusion typical of the 'Golden Age' to a new position of much greater visibility in which they were not only much more widely seen, but also much bolder in their general behaviour. In this development, there were two main 'types': the petimetra—the fashionable woman of good family who affected French fashions and considered herself the epitome of the new age of enlightenment—and the maja—the rough, tough harridan of street and market who rather stood unashamedly for the values of traditional Spain—and the two of them are certainly faithfully recorded by Goya. However, can we go further than that? Let us for the sake of argument agree with Tomlinson that women were indeed becoming more visible (though it is hard to imagine that the streets of Hapsburg Madrid were not just as teeming with women as that of its Bourbon counterpart: even if the women of the upper classes were kept locked away, economic necessity alone would have ensured that their poorer counterparts would still have been a constant presence). And, even if this is definitely a double-edged sword in terms of feminism, let us agree, too, that, as is sometimes claimed, Goya also celebrated both pregnancy and motherhood. But for Tomlinson all this was but the first step, the war bringing a new dimension that transformed the image of women in Spanish society. Thus:

The women who populate The Disasters of War bring to a heroic conclusion the roles for women that emerged in Goya's earlier works. Like the majas who populate the tapestry cartoons, these are working-class women unafraid of confrontation; like the Duchess of Osuna or the expectant Countess of Chinchón, they are mothers whose mission is to protect their children and family.

In short, Goya's women were not just champions of the cause of Spain, but also, however unconsciously, champions of the cause of women. This idea, meanwhile, is taken still further in the latest retelling of the tale of Agustina of Aragón. A garish strip cartoon, this repackages Zaragoza's heroine for a twenty-first century audience. In visual terms, this transforms her into a sex-object (or perhaps simply renders overt an aspect of the story that, though always present, has hitherto tended to lurk in the shadows), and yet the authors present her as the veritable epitome of female emancipation—'a warrior who ... takes the lead instead of remaining in the background and is ready to fight rather than seek protection ... a new type of woman who is not bound by the social conventions of the moment'.

Moving on, we come to the third category of image that we have alluded to, namely that of the woman as patriotic auxiliary. In so far as this is concerned, we may here again cite Las ruinas de Zaragoza, for in several of the engravings—'Alarma en la Torre del Pino', 'Batería en la Puerta del Sancho', 'Batería de la Puerta del Carmen'—one may spot women who are evidently bearing food and water to the defenders. Rather more personalised, however, is James Armytage's 'The Wounded Guerrilla'. Dating from 1849, this shows a member of some irregular band slumped on the back of a mule arriving home in the custody of a priest and being greeted at his door by a plump matron who is waving her hands in the air in grief, and a younger woman who, more practically, is readying the means of his care. Meanwhile, if women care for the wounded, they also encourage the soldiers to fresh feats of arms: in a print dating from the late 1840s entitled 'Wellington at Madrid', the illustrator Joseph Kronheim shows a crowd of young women strewing the British commander's way with flowers, whilst in 'Malasaña y su hija', Eugenio Álvarez Dumont shows the outraged father of a young Madrid embroideress named Manuela Malasaña who died in the course of the insurrection of the Dos de Mayo, hurling himself upon the French cavalryman who has seemingly just cut her down.


Excerpted from Women in the Peninsular War by Charles J. Esdaile. Copyright © 2014 Loren D. Estleman. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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